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Azarenka: Tennis hunger comes from childhood in Belarus


MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Pressure is merely a matter of perspective for Victoria Azarenka, who can recall days when she was worried as much about going hungry as she did about her next match.

The two-time Australian Open champion is emerging as a favorite for the title, growing in confidence following two injury-interrupted seasons as she tallies victories and while leading contenders are making early-round exits to open up the draw.

Azarenka dropped her opening service game without winning a point on Saturday, but recovered quickly to beat Japanese qualifier Naomi Osaka 6-1, 6-1 win in 56 minutes. No. 2 Simona Halep went out in the first round, while No. 3 Garbine Muguruza lost in the third round in the match before 14th-seeded Azarenka went on court.

Asked about the apparent change in her fortunes and her frame of mind, and to contrast it with the pressure on other leading rivals, Azarenka opened up about what it has taken to develop from being a promising child player in Belarus to a contender for Grand Slam titles.

First of all, merely getting an opportunity came only from beating everyone else.

“If you’re not the best, you don’t get sponsored at all,” she said, delving back into her past. “So that was pretty rough.”

She remembered one day, on the junior circuit, which “still affects me every time.”

During a nine-week stint, sometimes playing two matches a day, she said, if she missed the scheduled times when food was provided, she went hungry.

“I had no money. I didn’t get to eat,” she said. “So that was pressure, you know, to survive. That was survival, really. So, pressure right now is go out there and face a big opponent? OK, but when you’re like hungry and you’ve got to go play and you have absolutely nothing, that’s big pressure.”

Asked if there was some kind of advantage growing up that way, she said, “That’s just what makes you tough - I wouldn’t call it an advantage, because it never feels like it, for sure.”

But it has shaped her as a person and as a competitor.

At another point during Azarenka’s unusually long and self-analytical news conference, she talked about how all players react differently to pressure. For her, it’s a motivating force.

“I love it. I embrace it,” Azarenka said. “Pressure for me, I think it’s part of where I came from. I always had pressure. I had one shot to get out of where I am, so that was way more pressure than I’m having pressure right now.”

Azarenka will next play No. 48-ranked Barbora Strycova, who upset 2015 Wimbledon finalist Muguruza 6-3, 6-2.

Azarenka is one of three Australian Open champions remaining - six-time winner Serena Williams and 2008 winner Maria Sharapova are on the other half of the draw and could meet in the quarterfinals.